The Importance of Spiritual Disciplines

How to care for a healthy soul.

“Beloved, I pray that all may go well with you and that you may be in good health, as it goes well with your soul.” (3 John 2, ESV)

This tiny verse in a tiny letter is an interesting one. On the one hand, it is a standard form of greeting: John expresses his prayerful wish that Gaius does well and is in good health. It is like notes written today that say, “I pray this message finds you all doing well.” The twist in this greeting is the latter line: “as it goes well with your soul.” In the Greek text, the mood the verb used for “go well” shifts from a prayerful wish at the beginning of the verse to a statement of fact at the end. Thus, some translations provide this rendering: “I know that it is well with your soul” (3 John 2b, RSV). John prays that things will go as well with Gaius as his soul. Regardless of what is around him, John is confident of the health and flourishing of Gaius’s soul.

The word “soul” can be a tricky one in the Bible. Commonly in the Old Testament, “soul” is used to designate “life.” For example, Adam became a living soul (Hebrew, nephesh) after God breathed into the clay body (Genesis 1:7). Sometimes, however, the Scriptures use the term “soul” to refer to the inner life of the person. 3 John 2 is one example: John prays for Gaius’s external life and health to do as well as his inner life (soul). Other examples include Deuteronomy 13:3, Psalm 139:14, Ephesians 6:6; and Matthew 22:37. Because of this multi-faceted usage in Scripture, Dallas Willard defines the soul as “that dimension of the person that interrelates all of the other dimensions so that they form one life. It is like a meta-dimension or higher-level dimensions because its direct field of play consists of the other dimensions (thought, body, and so on), and through them it reaches ever deeper into the person’s vast environment of God and His creation” (Renovation of Heart, 37). The point is that the health of the soul is vital for full human flourishing. In fact, Jesus indicates that all outer things can go well and yet all be lost because of the loss of the soul (Matthew 16:26).

Every year, millions of people make New Year’s resolutions. Studies indicate that weight loss and similar fitness goals are among the top choices. A startling number of people do not keep their resolutions. Most often, this comes from unrealistic resolutions, lack of clear goals, or lack of a realistic plan.

I wonder if the lack of attention to a healthy soul is a critical factor. If the soul has to do with how we perceive the world and prioritize our lives, then it would make sense that a healthy soul would help us to realistically assess, plan, and prioritize. For example, let us suppose that I make a resolution to get out of financial debt. Obviously, that means that I need to create a budget, spend less, perhaps earn more for a season, and direct funds toward a realistic debt elimination plan. It is actually fairly simple. But is it easy? Suppose that I am in debt because I purchase things I do not need with money I do not have. Why? Suppose I do so because it makes me feel like I have control in my life and leads me to think I can get the approval of certain people I want to impress. In this case, my practical debt elimination plan will always be undermined by a false view of the world (spending = control and acquisition = status) and myself (I am what I possess). These are soul issues. When hard choices need to be made, the practical plan usually loses to the disordered inner life. The resolution is simply blown away by the full gale-force winds of the unhealthy soul.

Perhaps we should begin with the inner life. The wise father counseled his son this way: “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life” (Proverbs 4:23). This January, we at The King’s Collective want to start the year focusing on the health of the heart. Throughout this month, we will be talking about various ways that we can give attention to the health of our inner life. As we do this, there are some things to keep in mind.

First, we remember that all our health comes from God. The transformation of our lives into the image of Jesus Christ is a result of the gracious work of God in us. He loves first, He acts first, and He will finish the task.

Second, at the same time, we realize that we have a role to play. Dallas Willard frequently said, “Grace is opposed to earning, not to effort.” The apostle Paul told us to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12). We partner with God by opening ourselves to His Holy Spirit.

Third, the people of God have noted several important practices that help us partner with God in this transformation. These practices are often called “disciplines.” They give us no merit in our standing before God. Rather, they become means of God’s grace to us so that we can be healed. God is not impressed by our prayers, but He certainly meets us in those prayers to heal us.

Fourth, though we are talking about the inner life, the outer life is also involved. The disciplines will affect our bodies, habits, and relationships. We are not looking for an escape from this world, but to bring everything together in step with the Holy Spirit.

Fifth, we do these things together. We are born into the family of God and ought to live out our lives in the family. Sometimes some disciplines must be done individually. As a whole, however, the journey takes place in the community and participates with the community.

Finally, we do this with joy. Even when things are not easy, we know that the outcome is more grace. We are opening up to the Holy Spirit so that more fruit might be borne in us. This is joyful work! We would do well to remember Jesus’ counsel about prayer and fasting and banish from us the long, pained, faces of the spiritual virtue-signalers.            

Join us in the journey. And may your soul prosper!

Dr. Daniel Davis
Dr. Daniel Davis
Dr. Daniel Davis is Associate Professor of Theology and Director of the Bachelor of Christian Ministry at The King's University.